IN THE final analysis, Rangers’ efforts in winning the Third Division have been as good as they needed to be. And perhaps the fact that, just as with a team called Celtic that are closing in on the Scottish Premier League, they had no “must win” games in the entire league programme, accounts for them winning precious few with any panache. Perhaps.
Montrose 0-0 Rangers
As has been the case from day one of the fourth-tier campaign that the post-liquidation, reincarnated club undertook eight months ago in Montrose, on Saturday Ally McCoist’s side were rotten; a real difficult watch. It would not be overstating it to describe them as eye-wateringly awful in posting a second consecutive scoreless draw, which, remarkably, was said to be gained with a superior performance to that given at home to Stirling Albion. One that extends to almost 500 the number of minutes since the Ibrox side last netted from open play, and means they have only taken five points from a possible 12.
Such statistics are frankly mind-boggling in the context of Rangers as the Third Division’s one full-time club, and, with a £7 million wage bill that is the second highest across Scotland’s 42 senior clubs, a budget on average 28 times that of any side they have come up against in the league this season. McCoist admitted there was no spark or zip from his side. He highlighted the need to play Kane Hemmings on his own up front because of the unavailability of other forwards Andy Little, Dean Shiels and Francisco Sandanza. Frankly, when you can afford to pay a raft of signings £5,000-a-week, you can have no legitimate excuses not to beat part-timers. Which, it must be said, Rangers, for all their slips – eight draws, defeats and shoddy displays (about another ten of their 31 fixtures) pulled off sufficiently often to walk a title race they now lead by 22 points.
In his later reflections on a title success that he and his team celebrated on the bus home from the lunchtime encounter in Montrose because it required to be delivered through nearest challengers Queen’s Park losing at home to Elgin three hours later, McCoist said if money spent was a guarantee of winning championships then Manchester City would win the English Premier League every year. The financial differentials nowhere else resemble those that made Rangers’ winning of the Third Division a given.
McCoist also was keen to stress that the league was harder to win than many expected because of the manner in which every team raised their game hugely when the mighty Rangers were staring them down on the other side of the field. There can be no disputing that. Montrose, who lost their previous home match 6-0, were only denied a win over Rangers because referee Kevin Clancy wrongly disallowed a 66th minute strike by Martin Boyle for a foul on Neil Alexander in the lead-up to it. Television replays later showed Alexander had been impeded by his own player.
If there is anything to truly celebrate about the Rangers journey this season it is that it has demonstrated Third Division football deserves a respect hitherto not afforded it. Montrose, benefitting from their visitors’ failure to capitalise on early chances, produced the more constructive football and the crisper passing moves in the second period. The seven teams who have taken points from the Ibrox side this season, a group that does not include the craft-driven Queen’s Park, have earned their spoils through showing they can move the ball around, not just batter opponents to the ground.
McCoist says “the evidence” is there to see on the park that he needs a recruitment drive that will increase his numbers by “double figures”. Rangers are able to sign free contract men once their registrations embargo ends when the summer transfer window closes at the end of August. If, as still seems likely, Rangers are not pitted against any of the top 24 teams in Scotland, he should be able to get by with the players currently draining the club of a preposterous amount of money. McCoist must be able to get more out of the players such as David Templeton, Ian Black and Shiels they grandstanded in bringing in last summer.
If they needed to push themselves more to win the required number of games, then surely Rangers could produce football more watchable, or even just more energised, than the piddlingly ponderous version of the game that has become all too much the norm for them this season.
Plenty of the club’s supporters are willing to give McCoist more time to demonstrate that is the case. On the back of Charles Green’s asset purchase last June that brought this newco version of their club to life, they have argued that year one was always going to be difficult. They see their real “victories” as the oldco not being hit for an expected £50m over their use of employee benefit trusts following a tax tribunal decision now under appeal, and the fact that a fine on oldco was the only consequence of an independent commission deciding Rangers had deliberately failed to disclose payments made to players in the contracts they lodged with the governing bodies. These outcomes were certainly more dramatic, thrilling and memorable than any achieved by a raggle-taggle Rangers squad on the park.